The Ghost of Conway Twitty by Chelyen Davis


I don’t fool with special phone ringtones for different people, but I do assign them pictures, so when the phone rang I knew it was my sister Vada calling but I answered anyway.

“Mom says Conway Twitty is in her living room talking to her,” Vada said. “You need to come home.”

I didn’t know what she thought I could do, but you don’t say no to Vada unless you want to hear about it, so I canceled my weekend plans and got in the car and drove the three hours home to the mountains. I mean the deep mountains, where no roads are straight and no sun shines in the front yard until after nine in the morning, where the mountains rising up on every side make it feel like you’re looking up out of the bottom of a jar. Where you have to drive an hour to see a specialist or two hours to get Thai food, but the view off the top of the ridge will stop your heart every time. 

To get there I get on a four-lane highway, then a four-lane with stoplights, then a twisty two-lane, then finally a gravel road up to the house, the way getting narrower with each road.

Mom’s house, our house, perches sideways on the hillside, with the driveway in front and her garden stretching out behind. You walk straight into the living room off the porch, no fancy entryways here like the new developments springing up where I live now, identical houses filling up tiny lots, elbow to elbow with the same plywood house next door, fanned out around cul-de-sacs. 

The living room is where I found Mom and Vada Friday evening. They were watching The Price is Right, Mom’s favorite show, and she’s usually spot on about the prices. When I was little the game shows only came on in the daytime but with the cable these days you can see what you want when you want. Mom hit mute on the remote and got up to hug me when I walked in. 

“Skinny,” she said, like she hadn’t seen me a month before. I come home as much as I can. “Go on in the kitchen and fix you a plate.”

Vada was in the same rocker Mom used when we were babies, rocking aggressively. She was clearly coiled up for something. Vada fed on conflict like a cat on milk. I knew she didn’t spend every Friday night at Mom’s, so she’d been lying in wait for me. 

“You rock that chair any harder, Vada, you’re going to fly out,” Mom said. “No way is that washer worth $600. For that money it better go to the hamper and sort the colors. There’s cornbread on the counter, made it tonight.”

“I’ll get some in a minute,” I said, sitting down on the couch, as far from Vada as I could get. 

We chatted, inconsequential things. How were the roads, had I had any trouble, had I seen any deer. 

Finally Vada had waited long enough.

“Why don’t you tell Charlie about Conway Twitty?” she asked. 

Mom waited until a commercial came on and hit the mute button, silencing the carnival noises of the TV. The only sound was the angry creak of Vada’s rocker.

“Oh yes, he was sitting right there in your daddy’s chair,” Mom said. “Wednesday, I think it was. Just as big as life and so handsome.”

For years, Daddy had spent his evenings in a recliner that sat under the living room window. When one wore out, he got another one and put it in the same place. He’d died in the last one five years ago, a quick and presumably peaceful heart attack, and even though the chair was worn and stained, Mom hadn’t had the heart to throw it out. She kept to her traditional place at one end of the couch.

“Well, what’d Conway Twitty have to say?” I asked. Vada snorted, as if that was a dumb question. I didn’t think it was. Whatever he’d said—or Mom imagined he said—could be important. 

“Oh, he mostly smiled. He looked happy.”

“You said he talked to you,” Vada said.

“He said, ‘Hello, darlin.’ You know, like he used to sing. And then he said, ‘Louann, everything’s all right.’ I wondered if it was your daddy speaking through him, but probably not.”

“Did you say anything back to him?”

“I said ‘Hello, Mr. Twitty, this is an honor’,” Mom said, sounding proud of how properly she had welcomed the ghost of a country music star into her living room. “And then after he smiled and said everything was ok, he just sort of disappeared. Faded out, like.”

“Had you seen him before?” I asked.

“Nope. First time. And I won’t tell you or Vada either one if he comes back, as much as she’s fussed about it.”

The commercial was over and Mama unmuted the TV, blaring music back into the room. I got up and went into the kitchen for some iced tea and a plate of cornbread and whatever else I could scrounge for supper. The overhead light buzzed to life, bathing the dark wood cabinets and cherry-patterned wallpaper in a cold fluorescent glow. 

I turned from the Frigidaire and about ran into Vada, who had followed me.

“What do you think?” she whispered, not waiting for my answer. “She’s losing her mind, Charlie. Conway Twitty! What in the world.” She opened the window and lit a Virginia Slim.

“Vada, take that cancer stick outside!” Mama yelled over the pings and bells of her show. Vada grabbed my arm and pushed me toward the back door. Out on the concrete patio, the summer air was still warm in the darkness, and insects chirped at each other across the holler. I looked up at the dark sky, far darker than I ever saw these days in the city. The mountains were black shadows but between them, stars twinkled like rhinestones on a Nudie suit. I took a drag off her cigarette and handed it back. 

“I forgot she liked Conway Twitty,” I said. 

To be more accurate, Mom liked Loretta Lynn. Loved Loretta Lynn. Loretta’s plain-talking, take-no-shit style had resonated with Mom. Tammy Wynette might stand by her man, but Mom was more of a You Ain’t Woman Enough type of woman. A coal miner’s daughter herself, Mom felt a kinship with Loretta Lynn. To the extent that she liked Conway Twitty, it was because of his duets with Loretta Lynn. 

For years, Loretta’s records, with or without Conway, were in heavy rotation in our house. If pressed, I could probably sing along word for word to a few dozen of her songs. 

“I forgot, too,” Vada said. “I’m surprised it’s not Loretta’s ghost.”

“Loretta Lynn is still alive,” I said. Vada blinked.

“Really? I hadn’t paid attention. I figured she must have died by now.”

It seemed so long ago, the scratchy records, the twangy songs. Loretta often sang with a twinkle in her voice, I remembered, like she was telling you a joke. That’s what I had liked about her, when so many singers took themselves so seriously. Loretta seemed like regular people.

At our house growing up, it was Loretta and Conway on a Saturday night, and bluegrass and gospel records on Sunday mornings, Bill Monroe and the sharp smell of coal smoke in the winter air.

Vada stubbed out her cigarette on the concrete and swiped at the charcoal stain with her foot.

“We have to watch her, Charlie. This could be the start of her going downhill.”

“Well, have you seen any other signs?”

Vada had to concede that she had not. 

“I don’t know if delusions are a sign of dementia,” I said. 

“Just watch her, see what you think.”


So I did. Vada went on home, and Mom and I went to bed. My room was still the same as it had been in high school, worn beige carpet and a twin bed. The bookcase still held my books from childhood and my trophies for debate. 

My bedroom window opened onto the porch roof, and when I was young, I’d crawl out and lay on that roof, looking up at the stars, and the walls of the mountains, and plot my escape. I felt almost desperate to see more sky, to not feel like a bug in a jar. 

Staying after high school didn’t even seem like an option, not for a kid like me, smart but soft. We almost all left, the nerdy kids, the ones who did drama and band and worked on the school yearbook. It was expected of us, and we somehow absorbed that expectation without it ever being said. There wasn’t enough for us here. Opportunity was in the outside world, where the stars were dimmed by city lights. 

Vada stayed. If I was the nerd, she was the wild child, with bad grades and worse boyfriends. She could have done well in school; she was smart. Sharp, like Mom. Our mother had always been sharp, both smart and quick with a retort, apt to prick you whether she meant to or not. 

“Your mama’s tongue outruns her brain,” Daddy would say. 

Vada had inherited that sharp tongue. But Mom was also quick with a hug and a laugh. Vada could be prickly.

I spent Saturday helping Mom with little chores. Her garden was coming in and we picked ripe tomatoes off the vine, early corn off the stalks, a couple of cucumbers. I wondered how long it had been since I’d had my hands in dirt. 

All the time I watched Mom, waiting for confusion or forgetfulness. 

            We made supper from the vegetables we’d picked, and Vada came back to eat with us. I knew she would expect an assessment, to find out if I had seen anything Vada hadn’t. If I, with the fresh eyes of not having seen Mom for a month, had noticed anything new. 

I saw nothing. She worked slower than she had when Vada and I were kids and served as her workers, planting where we were told to plant and hoeing where we were told to hoe. But I worked slower now than I did then, too. I could ride my bike to work every day (not that I did) and still not use the muscles I needed to work in Mom’s garden. I had become softer than ever.

And if Mom forgot where she’d laid down the garden fork, or which daughter of a neighbor had gotten divorced, was it bad? I forgot things too, constantly searching for keys, cell phones, the name of the thing I was at the store to buy. Should we worry? Where was the line between forgetful and sick?

We made supper from the vegetables we’d picked, and Vada came back to eat with us. I knew she would expect an assessment, to find out if I had seen anything Vada hadn’t. If I, with the fresh eyes of not having seen Mom for a month, had noticed anything new. 

After we ate, we shooed Mom back to the living room to watch TV. Vada filled the sink with dishwater and I picked up the drying towel. 

“Well?” she said. 

“Mom and I both saw Conway Twitty,” I answered. 

It was meant to be a joke. But Vada didn’t laugh. Instead, she dropped the plate she was washing into the water and turned to me. Good thing you can’t break Corelle ware.

“What is wrong with you, Charlie? I need you to take this seriously.”

“I was kidding,” I said. “We did not see Conway Twitty. But I didn’t see anything else either. I don’t know what to look for. If she forgets a few things, is that dementia? Or is it normal? I don’t know! Maybe Conway is just a blip. Maybe he was a dream. We’ll have to wait and see.”

“You mean I’ll wait and see,” Vada said. “You won’t be here.”

“What do you mean? I come home all the time. I’m here every month.”

“And I’m here every day.”

“Nobody’s making you,” I said. “You can leave any time.”

Vada snorted. 

“You have no idea, Charlie. You come in for a weekend and you change the lightbulb and pull the tomatoes and you think that’s the same? I helped her plant those tomatoes. I drive her places at night because she can’t see as well to drive. What would happen if I wasn’t here?”

Over the years, Vada had made vague, cutting comments about my life away from home. How I’d gone to Europe, and all she could do was go to Myrtle Beach. How it must be nice to go to fancy restaurants. How it must be nice to have that college education to get me jobs. 

But if it had hurt her feelings, or her pride, or her sense of fairness, that I was gone, this was the first time we both saw how it would affect her life. I knew she wasn’t wrong. If Mom lost her mind, or got sick, I’d visit as often as I could. But it would be Vada who took care of her. 

Still, that wasn’t my fault. 

“You made your own choices, Vada. No one kept you here. No one said you couldn’t go to Europe. No one said don’t go to college. You did.”

“I did what was expected of me,” Vada said. 

I laughed. 

“Were you expected to fail algebra? Were you expected to lay out at night in high school?”

“Yes,” Vada said. “Yes. You’re the golden child, not me.” 

“You lived up to your own expectations,” I said. “You can go any time.”

“I can’t. Look around you. Daddy’s gone. You’re gone. Mom’s talking to ghosts. Who is going to keep things together?” 

“Maybe you don’t have to keep things together. Maybe you can let them go.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Vada said. “You have no idea what I’m holding together here. You come back and you assume we’ll be here waiting for you, just the same. You can’t preserve things the way they are just by leaving them behind. Time doesn’t stop here when you’re gone. It keeps going. And so do we.”

She threw the dishrag into the sink and stalked out of the kitchen. I heard her tell Mom she’d see her later in the week, and then the door slammed.

I washed the dishes alone.


When I was twelve, we took a family trip to Graceland. Daddy was an Elvis fan. We piled in the station wagon, and I remember how flat Tennessee seemed once you got past Knoxville. It was the first time I’d crossed a time zone. 

On that trip, we were also dragged on a tour of the Loretta Lynn ranch. Mom hoped we’d see Loretta but of course we didn’t. Not only was there a big house, there was a whole compound. Loretta had built a replica coal mine, museums, and rebuilt the cabin she grew up in. I thought it was ridiculous, so over the top I wondered how Loretta herself could stand it. 

Now I can see the temptation to reconstruct your past, the things you loved, rebuilding it all just the way you remember it—not the way it was, but better.

I wonder how Loretta Lynn felt, rebuilding her Butcher Holler house so far from its Kentucky home, no coal dust in its boards, no mother flatfooting to the Opry on the radio. I imagine her going in once it was done, walking its empty rooms, and I wonder if she was glad she’d tried, or wished she’d left it in Kentucky, in the past. 

I think Loretta knew you can’t build it back the same. I can drive home every month but I can’t rebuild Daddy in his recliner, Mom’s slights and hugs, a warm summer evening with aunts and uncles all over the porch and me and Vada chasing lightning bugs through the dark yard with cousins. I could rebuild this house in my backyard and it would never be more than walls and a roof. The light would never hit it right, without the mountain above it. The dirt would never smell the same.


I told Mom goodnight and went up to bed. But instead of laying down, I crawled out my window, which had been a lot easier to accomplish when I was younger. I laid down on the roof, the shingles rough against the backs of my arms. The stars above were just the same as they had always been. I used to see them as a goal, something far away that I could almost get to, just by leaving the mountains. Now I looked at them and saw that they hadn’t cared that I left. I could come or go, but they would be here, the same, holding the sky together.

I heard a creak and a cuss word at the window and sat up to see Mom climbing out, even less gracefully than I had done. Carefully, she sat down beside me.

“I always knew you came out here to think, you know,” she said. “It’s hard to think when you can’t see a long way, inside the house. I used to go up on the ridge to do my thinking, but this is easier.”

We lay there side by side, looking up at the stars, silent for a while. 

“Vada was always sour,” Mom said. 

She’d clearly heard us fighting in the kitchen.

“She’s not wrong. I left her to do everything.”

“She acted out of her own accord. She wanted my attention,” Mom said. “It wasn’t that I loved you more. It was just that you were so much easier.” 

“Did you really talk to the ghost of Conway Twitty?” I asked. 

Mom sighed.

“I don’t know. Maybe Vada’s right, and I’m losing my mind.”

“Do you think you are?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t think so, but then, I wouldn’t know, would I? I hope I don’t find out. Don’t tell me if I am. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

We lay on the roof together, shingles at our backs, stars over our heads, insects singing in the night, and for a time, I didn’t need anything more.

Chelyen Davis's fiction work has previously appeared in Still: The Journal and in Appalachian Review, where it was awarded the 2016 Denny C. Plattner Award. Her non-fiction essays have appeared in The Bitter Southerner and other media outlets. A native of Southwest Virginia, she currently lives in Richmond, Virginia.

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